The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Chinese Nationalist Mythmaking: Kissinger Edition

June 14, 2005

I really don’t want to criticize the same high-profile blogger twice in a row, but David Adesnik’s takedown of Henry Kissinger deserves some commentary.

Kissinger’s shilling for China again. No news there. David does a good job of pointing out what’s substantively wrong with the op-ed. His framing, however, is all off. For David, Kissinger’s mistake is a failure of realism:

As a committed realist, Kissinger desperately wants to believe that American foreign policy can be made without reference to the deeply-rooted ideals of democracy and human rights. And he’s right; it can. From 1969 until 1976, the United States displayed almost no concern for democracy or human rights. Coincidentally, Kissinger served as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State from 1969 until 1969. (And the first president Kissinger worked for didn’t even seem to be too concerned about subverting democracy within the United States.)

In addition to being an ethical concern, democracy and human rights have a lot to do with national security.

Kissinger’s problem isn’t his “realism,” though. Many realists have been jumping up and down for years about the dangers increasing Chinese power poses to US interests. True, realists don’t think national security concerns should be put at the mercy of norms and ethical values, but that’s a far cry from arguing in favor of simple accommodation of a rising authoritarian power.

David goes on to argue that:

As Robert Kagan pointed out in his recent column about China, there is only one clear-cut case of a rising power in the international system making it to the top without fighting a war against the hegemon it displaced. That rising power was the United States. That hegemon was Britain. Rightly, Kagan observes that

The fact that both powers shared a common liberal, democratic ideology, and thus roughly consonant ideas of international order, greatly lessened the risk of accommodation from the British point of view.

Britain’s accomodation of rising US power is a really important puzzle in international-relations scholarship, but my superficial knowledge of the case suggests that attributing British policy to “shared ideology” is a bit too pat. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain simply had far more pressing and important security concerns than growing US influence in the western hemisphere. As long as border disputes with Canada could be resolved, the British simply didn’t have a stake in trying to contain the US.

But since I largely agree with David on the specifics of China, let me shift to Kissinger’s essay, which was full of simply absurd historical claims – ones lifted directly from Chinese nationalist myth. For example, Kissinger writes that:

It is unwise to substitute China for the Soviet Union in our thinking and to apply to it the policy of military containment of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was heir to an imperialist tradition, which, between Peter the Great and the end of World War II, projected Russia from the region around Moscow to the center of Europe. The Chinese state in its present dimensions has existed substantially for 2,000 years.

Some examples. Here’s Han China:

Here’s T’ang China:

Here’s Yuan China:

Here’s Ming China:

Here’s Qing China:

(All images taken from

Lesson #1: No.
Lesson #2: China potentially has a lot of irredentist claims. Indeed, various incarnations of China have sought to dominate their neighbors from Vietnam to Korea, and from Taiwan to Central Asia.

Now, the current Chinese government has toned down its rhetoric about restoring Chinese territory, which is one reason its neighbors aren’t particularly worried. Yet, if we believe the realist argument, rising powers will tend to seek international status commensurate with their increasing power. This is the German analogy that Kissinger tries to refute. The problem is that China might be approximately where Germany was under Bismarck – and hence look relatively benign – and, like Germany, develop a rather different orientation in only a couple of decades.

In his conclusion, Kissinger argues that

America needs to understand that a hectoring tone evokes in China memories of imperialist condescension and that it is not appropriate in dealing with a country that has managed 4,000 years of uninterrupted self-government.

Kissiner may accurately capture Chinese perceptions, but the idea that China has managed “4,000 years of uninterrupted self-government” is nonsense. First, there really wasn’t even a “China” until the totalitarian Qin conquered their independent neighbors and Han propagandists created a narrative of “natural unity” of the empire. Second, the Jurchen, Mongols, and others might have something to say about this whole self-government thing.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.